While staying with Raj’s family in Himachal Pradesh, I learned about farming methods in the area. Despite the village atmosphere, farming methods here are very modern. There are no cows wandering the streets or plowing the fields. Tractors have replaced bullock power and water buffalo are used for milk instead of cattle. Families only keep enough water buffalo for their own use, which includes, milk, and dung for cooking fuel and garden fertilizer. The large fields are planted with North India’s staple crops: wheat, rice, and mustard (for seed and oil). Without an abundance of cattle and their manure, villagers purchase chemical fertilizer to add nutrients back to their fields. Chemicals are also used to treat various pests that are attracted to the large tracts of homogenized crops.
These modern farming methods are the hallmark of India’s green revolution, which happened after the British restored power back to Indians. The use of chemical fertilizer and tractors did initially increase the amount of food that farmers produced, which was (and still is) important to feed India’s large population. University extension programs help farmers test their soil and prescribe the best crops for the soil, give or sell the farmers seeds (sometimes genetically modified organisms from U.S. companies), and the appropriate fertilizers and chemicals to treat the soil. Many of these programs are subsidized by the government, otherwise the cost of seed, chemicals, and fertilizer would be too costly. Profit margins are so small that it is almost impossible for farmers to get out of debt if their crops fail.
In some parts of India farmers have invested in genetically modified crops and then experienced crop failure. Some farmers have been unable to pay back the debt they incurred. This new modern problem of debt caused a significant number of farmers to commit suicide. Some farmers have ended their lives in dramatic and symbolic fasion by ingesting the chemicals they used on their fields. The farmers I met in Himachal Pradesh did not rely solely on farming for their income, but have other jobs, like my friend Raj, who is also a driver for tourists and lives in Delhi for most of the year. Other farmers that rely on crops for their sole income are still vulnerable to the vicious cycle of debt and farmer suicide has incited much controversy in India. If you are interested you can read more about it here.
Raj did not know anyone in his area that still farmed organically, although some of the old timers remembered a time before chemicals were used on crops. One old man told me people used to be healthier than they are now and thought that chemicals were likely to blame. I asked Raj why people buy chemical fertilizer instead of cow manure. Raj said that there weren’t enough cows around. The nearest cow dairy was a half hour’s drive and purchasing and transporting cow manure would cost more than the chemical fertilizer. For this reason, the organic food movement in India is dependent upon the tradition of keeping cattle. This is one of the reasons the biodynamic movement, a farming method that utilizes cow manure and urine in inventive ways, has gained momentum in India. (More about that in the next blog… )
The extensive use of irrigation is also a hallmark of modern farming in many parts of India, including Himachal Pradesh. Raj took me to the river to see if the migrant Muslim populations that grow vegetables along the riverbeds farmed organically. On the way there we walked through a huge dry riverbed that was being mined for road bed. The river was dry because of the current drought in the Himalayas, the diversion of water for irrigation, and dams that provide electricity for the state. The neighboring river was still flowing and there were long rows of dried grass hedges lining its banks. These hedges had been made by the migrant farmers to shelter the vegetables. Tomatoes, watermelons, cucumbers, and pumpkin were some of the crops planted there. It didn’t take long for us to discover whether they farmed organically. Empty bottles of chemical treatments were strewn throughout the gardens. Chicken manure was also used to fertilize the sandy soil. The slick patches of algae growing along the banks of the wide river signified that there was too much nitrogen leaching into the water from the surrounding farmland.
The environmental problems caused by industrial farming are not unique to India. They are actually a result of the Western influence to increase food yield, and they are problems in America too. Increasing food production is a noble goal, especially in countries like India where there are so many people to feed, but these methods have added financial and environmental costs. Like farmers the world over, the farmers I met in India and honest hard-working people trying to do the best they can for their families. They also want to use the latest modern “innovations” to improve their farming methods. Unfortunately, many of these innovations are also toxic to the environment over time. Some of the farmers I met were interested in learning about organic farming if they could make a better profit, but were also reluctant to make any changes that required them to work harder. After living in the villages and seeing that most people already work another job and farm, I don’t blame them for feeling that way.